Movement Features in Our Diary 2011: April

A project to give a unique ID to every resident in India was set in place in January 2009. In July 2009, Nandan Nilekani, formerly of Infosys who had recently moved out of the company, took over as Chairman of the UIDAI. The UIDAI was located in the Planning Commission by an executive order. The project was promoted as an exercise in giving every resident an identity. The inability to prove identity, the UIDAI Strategy Overview read, was one of the biggest barriers preventing the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies, and the UID would set that right. This honourable motive was quickly followed up with the admission that the “UID number will only guarantee identity, not rights, benefits or entitlements”.

The UID is a 12 digit number that will be issued to every person who parts with demographic and biometric information to the Registrars appointed by the UIDAI which include banks, the LIC and many state governments. Those with the documents to provide evidence of their demographic details, including name, address, age, parents’ names and UID, may enrol at their will. Those without documents that the enrolling agencies deem acceptable would have to depend on `Introducers’. It is in this task, especially, that grassroots organisations are being enlisted. As introducers, they would be expected to find those beyond the pale, collect the information that is to be in the data base, and get them enrolled. The UID of the introducer would be part of the record. Thus far, there is no indication of the responsibility, or liability, of the introducer; nor has there been any explanation of what erroneous information entering the data base may do to the `identity’ of the UID holder. Nothing has been said of those who may know no introducers.

The biometric data that is being gathered includes photograph, fingerprints and iris scan. This was to be deployed at the time of enrolment to effect `de-duplication’ – by which the uniqueness would be ensured – and for `authentication’ of the person. The UIDAI Committee on Biometrics, reporting in January 2010, had cautioned that “de-duplication of the magnitude required by the UIDAI has never been implemented in the world and, the absence of empirical Indian data, it is not possible for the committee to precisely predict the improvement in the accuracy of de-duplication to the fusion of fingerprint and iris scores.” The document speaks of “technology risks”, including the inability to guarantee biometrics of “high quality across its thousands of enrolment points”. Six months later, on 17 July 2010, the Economic Times reported that “people with ‘low-quality’ fingerprints and corneal/cataract problems” could “pose difficulties” for the project. “Millions of Indians working in agriculture, construction workers and other manual labourers have worn-out fingers due to a lifetime of hard labour” resulting in “low-quality” fingerprints. The iris scan cannot be done on people with corneal blindness or corneal scars. A 2005 study done by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences estimated six to eight million people in India had corneal blindness, and many more people would have corneal scars. A Hyderabad based eye institute identified cataract, which results from nutritional deficiency and prolonged exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet rays, and cataract surgery, as almost certain to affect the iris. The project authorities have, however, decided to steam ahead and take a chance and focus on enrolment. Its potential for authentication will just have to wait.

As part of the marketing strategy, the UIDAI asserts that enrolment for a UID is not mandated. Except that “this will not .. preclude governments or registrars from mandating enrollment” That is, a person may be denied services such as banking, PDS or education for not having a UID. In this sense, voluntary is compulsory.

The advantages of the UID are projected as De-duplication, which will eliminate multiple identities, and Portability, as the UID travels with the person since their biometrics moves with them.

The public distribution system, health, education and NREGS are held out as areas where the UID will be useful. The thinking on how it will be useful has been remarkably sketchy, and economists such as Ramkumar of TISS and Reetika Khera of the Delhi School of Economcs have challenged these questionable claims; and their challenge lies unmet.

What is not addressed is the probability of
Convergence. The project will create a `vast interlinked data base’ which will link up the `vast government (and private sector) storehouses of private data’.
Function creep, where the information spills over into a range of uses which were unintended and may be unwelcome, but over which control cannot then be exercised.
Surveillance. This is an intrusive technique of social and political control which will change the realtionship between the citizen/resident and the state, handing over enormous powers of use, and abuse, to those with proximity to state power.
Tagging. As succinctly stated by Sam Pitroda: “Today there are vertical, unconnected data silos in India… That has to change. So, UID tags every person, GIS every place and the Public Information Infrastructure [currently being put in place at an estimated cost of Rs 27,000 crores at the present time] tags every (government) programme. … Think about it — 2,50,000 panchayats connected to fibre, 3G, Wimax and other digital links to schools, bus-stands.”

These consequences of the technology fixes currently under construction lie unaddressed even as the UID project chugs along.

The UIDAI has entered into numerous memoranda of understanding with a range of agencies, both government and private. It has entered into contracts with technology companies which will be involved in the construction of the Central Identity Data Repository. It has begun to capture biometric and demographic data. Yet, as 17 eminent signatories including Justice VR Krishna Iyer, Prof Romila Thapar, Justice AP Shah, KG Kannabiran, SR Sankaran, Trilochan Sastry, Aruna Roy, Prof Upendra Baxi, Uma Chakravarthi, Deep Joshi have said in a public statement, despite the enormous impact the project is likely to have, there has been
no feasibility study
no cost:benefit analysis
no public discussion
no law on privacy in place
no information on how data will be secured from theft and misuse
no assessment of the constitutionality of the project.

Earlier this year, the UK abandoned the ID project that the Blair government had begun. A strident Home Secretary in the newly elected government said: “The biometric National ID scheme represents the worst of government. It is intrusive bullying, it is an assault on personal liberties, it is too expensive and would not fulfil the promised objectives. We propose to run government business as servants of the people, not their masters.” These are words that may need to be mulled over while practising, and debating, democracy.

The UID project has proceeded this far without the authority of law to lend it support. A draft Bill was readied towards the end of June 2010. When the winter session commenced, it had still not been introduced in Parliament. Issues of data collection, centralising of information, demographic and biometric details that may be collected, data theft, identity theft, the onus of introducers, voluntariness and compulsion, convergence and a host of other concerns will wend its way into the law, and judicial discourse, through time and circumstance.
by Usha Ramanathan, Independent Law Researcher
November 4, 2010

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(for Our Diary by Kriti team, 2011)